Released ahead of Oscars weekend, a new study suggests Hollywood may harbor some unwarranted concerns about moviegoers. Conducted by Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California and René Weber of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the study found films with minority and female leads do just as well at the box office as films with while and male leads, according to an analysis in The Hollywood Reporter.
Smith and Weber, who surveyed the top 100 films from 2007 to 2018, first established that films with white male and minority male leads have higher median production budgets than those with white female and minority female leads. That confirms the suspicion of industry critics who argue executives don’t put as much money behind films with non-white male leads (possibly for fear of alienating men from buying tickets, or possibly for other reasons).
Crucially, however, Smith and Weber found that when they controlled for “differences in financial and marketing support,” “female-led films are positively and statistically not significantly correlated with box office revenue and minority-led films are positively and significantly correlated with box office revenue.”
“The results of this analysis suggest that it is not the gender of the lead character but the money that is spent to create and promote films that impacts revenue,” Smith and Weber concluded. “Once differences in support are accounted for, race/ethnicity of leads/co leads is a significant positive predictor of box office performance in the U.S. and abroad.”
The study, THR reported, shows, “The most powerful predictors of U.S. box office revenue… are distribution density, story strength and production costs, in that order.” THR’s write-up included a particularly interesting observation from Smith and Weber:
‘Overall, the report reveals that biases regarding women and people of color are driving decision-making rather than a sophisticated understanding of the marketplace,’ the authors write. ‘This results in giving films starring women and people of color less support than their white male peers. Utilizing this data, executives can reimagine how they devote resources to films and how that might influence financial performance.’
Those biases aren’t a problem with audiences; they’re actually biases Hollywood holds about their audiences, assuming moviegoers are less willing to shell out money to see films helmed by women and minorities. That does not seem to be the case. Elizabeth Banks recently made this argument about concerns over female leads before her “Charlie’s Angels” reboot bombed.
In an industry reeling from streaming disruption, picking up scripts and settling on budgets is a process heavily driven by data. Whether race and sex alone are directly dictating the pattern Smith and Weber found in budget allocation is difficult to say, particularly because their study also found the market rewards men, women, and minorities at similar rates.
But this research should at least persuade some in Hollywood to take the burden of guilt off their audiences. Ahead of the “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016, The Cut published an article with the headline, “Seeing Ghostbusters on Opening Weekend Could Actually Help Fix Hollywood Sexism.”
“[F]emale-led blockbusters in Hollywood are still such a rarity, and the view that audiences won’t watch movies helmed by women so pervasive, that every female-led film is seen as a litmus test for every future one,” the author wrote.
Whether that pervasiveness is advanced in the industry by risk-averse executives or feminists, I don’t know. Banks seems to believe both moviegoers and executives are to blame: male moviegoers for eschewing films with female leads, and executives for allowing those habits to dictate budgets.
“Little Women,” nominated for Best Picture at Sunday’s Oscars, just soared past $100 million at domestic box offices on Thursday. Was the film a success because it turned out more women, despite lacking interest from men? It may be true that men are less interested in movies with female leads, but that’s hardly proof of sexism when movies with female leads tend to be geared towards women audiences.
Whatever is dictating budget inequities, and whether or not dudes are clamoring for Greta Gerwig, this research helps clarify an important point. Moviegoers don’t let the sex or race of a film’s lead determine its success. The box office appetite for movies helmed by women and minorities appears to be the same as that for men.